Friday, July 6, 2007

As General Motors refocuses its five automotive brands in an attempt to reclimb the ladder of success, it has given Buick the mandate to build vehicles with Lexus-like refinement.

Its first effort, the comfortable and competent Lucerne front-wheel-drive sedans landed near the target, but they were saddled with the same aging architecture that underpins the long-running Cadillac DTS sedans. They made the grade as a less-expensive DTS, with nearly 100,000 sales in 2006, but could not really be considered breakthrough vehicles.

Now comes the 2008 Buick Enclave, a new-from-the-ground-up, seven- or eight-passenger luxury crossover vehicle that might just have hit the bull’s-eye. Best of all for Buick, it arrives at a time when buyers are abandoning traditional sport-utility vehicles in favor of these less thirsty, more user-friendly SUV look-alikes.

The Enclave’s platform and powertrain are basically the same as those that underpin the recently introduced Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia. All three have nearly identical capacities, but the divisions went their separate ways in vehicle design and development.

A few hours with the Buick planners, designers and engineers responsible for the Enclave leaves no doubt that they really did sweat the details — all of them. That likely explains why the Buick is six months later to market than its counterparts.

From the start, the Buick was slotted in as the most expensive and most luxurious of the three. A faithful reproduction of the handsome Enclave concept introduced in 2006, it will fill the spaces created by the departing Rainier and Rendezvous sport-utility vehicles. The prominent waterfall grille and other design cues will show up on future Buick vehicles.

Buick is hoping prospective buyers will find the Enclave more than a match for the luxury crossover competition in at least three basic areas — available space, convenience and refinement, and price.

The Enclave comes in two trim levels, CX and CXL, both of which can be purchased with FWD or all-wheel drive. The CX has standard 18-inch wheels, and the CXL comes with 19-inch wheels.

Power is supplied by a version of the same aluminum 3.6-liter V-6 engine that can be found throughout the GM lineup. Featuring double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, it produces 275 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque.

The only available transmission is a compact, slick-shifting, six-speed automatic. Power-assisted, variable-ratio, rack-and-pinion steering handles the turning chores, and anti-lock ventilated disc brakes haul the nearly 5,000-pound vehicle to a halt.

The four-wheel independent suspension delivers a supple ride without excessive body roll.

In my short time behind the wheel, I found that the six-cylinder engine has its work cut out for it to keep the Enclave moving at a brisk pace when the road turns hilly. I suspect that it would get a real workout with a full load of passengers and cargo.

Nevertheless, the EPA rates fuel mileage with recommended regular gasoline at 16 miles per gallon city/24 mpg highway for FWD vehicles and 16/22 for AWD models.

Regarding space, shoppers will find that the Enclave has more passenger and cargo room than the Rainier and Rendezvous, and even exceeds the available space in many of General Motors traditional SUVs.

Buick claims the third row will hold three adults comfortably, and that may be a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, it is the roomiest third row among the many I have tried out over the years. Access is reasonably simple, too, thanks to unique fold-forward second-row seating, available as either two buckets or a 60/40 split bench that will hold three people.

Cargo space ranges from 18.9 cubic feet with all seat backs up to 115.1 cubic feet with the third and second rows folded forward.

To enhance the Enclave’s level of refinement, Buick employs “QuietTuning” to block, reduce and absorb sound. The windshield and front side windows have laminate between two layers of glass, doors are triple sealed, sound deadening foam has been injected into selected parts of the vehicle and special motor mounts quell noise, vibration and harshness from the engine compartment. Beyond that, Buick contracted supplier Michelin to design a tread that minimizes tire noise on the CXL vehicles.

All models have a comprehensive list of standard convenience features, including power driver’s and front-passenger’s seats, six-speaker sound system with satellite radio, power lift gate, driver information center, tilt and telescoping steering column, three-zone climate control and, especially for women, an elevated dead pedal for comfortable driving when wearing high-heeled shoes.

The CX comes with cloth upholstery and the CXL comes with perforated and heated leather seats. Among available options are a sunroof, upgraded sound system, navigation system, rear seat DVD player, remote starting, rear parking assist and a trailering package that allows the Enclave to tow up to 4,500 pounds.

Comprehensive safety features on all models include front and side air bags for front-seat passengers, side curtain air bags, stability control, traction control, tire pressure monitor and the OnStar emergency communication system.

Base prices range from $32,790 for an FWD CX to $36,990 for an AWD CXL. A fully loaded CXL could run as much as $45,000.

Buick is hoping the Enclave will keep its SUV buyers in the fold and attract younger buyers who now are driving other brands.

If early indications hold, the Enclave just might show the rest of the automotive world that Buick is on its way to regaining its stature as a manufacturer of premium luxury vehicles.

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